On an unseasonably warm day about a week into the coronavirus shutdown, Elena Delle Donne (a star player for the Washington Mystics of the WNBA, Olympic gold medalist in basketball and avid golfer) and her wife, Amanda, were musing about how nice it would be if golf courses were open.
A short time later, Delle Donne emerged from a basement workout to find that Amanda had built an intricate mini-golf course in their Alexandria, Va., front yard.
So, naturally, Delle Donne pulled on a pair of plaid trousers, unearthed a putter and started swinging. “We had a blast,” she said. “Our neighbors were jealous. They wanted to play.”
From the time that most leisure activities came to a grinding halt in March, people have been seeking out new, often inventive ways to keep occupied and entertained. Enter: mini golf.
Typically associated with midcentury resort kitsch, mini golf has actually been an escapist diversion since the early 20th century.
Mini-golf courses were “one of the first places where women were allowed to socially go unaccompanied,” said Maria Reidelbach, who co-wrote the 1987 illustrated history “Miniature Golf.”
During the Great Depression, children would create their own courses in vacant lots. The game’s popularity crested in 1930. Early Hollywood stars, Reidelbach discovered, couldn’t be photographed playing, out of studios’ fears that encouraging fans to partake in the so-called “madness of 1930” could eat into box office earnings.
These days, mini golf has been professionalized — each spring (except, for the obvious reasons, this one), the United States Pro Mini Golf Association hosts its own U.S. Open — but it also remains accessible for hobbyists, with courses dotted across the country. But you can make your own mini-golf course. Here’s how:
Consider your theme
It’s not necessary to have a theme, but it’ll enhance your course. Some Columbia graduates created the Putting Lot, an “urban sustainability-themed golf course” that took over a vacant lot in Brooklyn for a summer. Artists created nine holes, each of which took a different approach to the theme.
Gather your materials
For a surface, Reidelbach recommends pieces of old carpet or yoga mats; course boundaries can be constructed from the cardboard boxes that have inevitably piled up in your home (corrugated cardboard cuts well with a serrated knife, she notes), scrap wood or pool noodles.
A spare tire, cut through and slightly twisted, makes a good loop-the-loop; mailing tubes and recycled plastic bottles can be used as tunnels or chutes.
Amanda Delle Donne constructed obstacles from workout equipment, stuffed animals and bobblehead dolls. The Putting Lot used PVC pipe fittings for many holes. Solo cups, anchored in place, also work.
Construct a rough draft, tweak as necessary
When creating a mini-golf course, Bob Detwiler, the president of the United States Pro Mini Golf Association, makes a rough spray-painted outline of the course to ensure everything fits in the allotted space before actually breaking ground.
“Once you’ve got it laid out like that, you can come back and make changes and tweak it,” he said. “You can get as elaborate as you want.” (Detwiler favors an escapist, tropical-island-themed hole with water features and volcanoes.)
The first hole should always be the easiest, to set players off on a strong start, Detwiler said. It should always be possible, though not necessarily a given, to make a hole-in-one on each hole. “You make an ace, and you feel like you’re an athlete,” Detwiler said.
Some materials may not work as intended, so be prepared to make slight adjustments as you build and play.
Get the neighbors involved
In late May, Chris Knoper, an elementary school teacher who lives in Southfield, Mich., e-mailed her neighbors to request their help in creating a street-wide mini-golf course. Participating families would construct an outdoor mini-golf hole, ensuring it was accessible from the street or driveway, and, during a prearranged afternoon period, the players — of whom there ended up being about 35 — would putt through the neighborhood’s 10 holes while maintaining social distance.
It gave residents a purpose and a pretext to safely check on one another.
“A lot of people are more intentional about saying hello,” Knoper said, “and now people are talking about, ‘What could we do next?’ ”
Don’t be a stickler for rules
More than anything, a do-it-yourself mini-golf hole is bound to be silly. In Knoper’s neighborhood, some people used croquet mallets, baseball bats or hockey sticks in lieu of putters.
“You just fall down giggling on some holes,” Reidelbach said of the game. “They’re just so clever and fun and charming.”